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In the BMJ Global Health article, “Is the cure really worse than the disease? The health impacts of lockdowns during COVID-19“, Meyerowitz-Katz et al. (1) seek to assess the impact of lockdowns on population health. However, any comprehensive evaluation of the impacts of lockdown may benefit from including the broader effects that such restrictions may have on health due to environmental changes - particularly in regard to air pollution and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and the flow-on effects these have on human health due to climate change.
As described by the authors, lockdowns are associated with broad detriments to human health and are generally undesirable. However, there is now considerable evidence that lockdowns result in noticeable decreases in air pollution. The 6th IPCC Assessment Report deems with high confidence that air quality improved as a result of COVID-19 lockdowns (2). When global lockdowns reached their most widespread point in April 2020, global CO2 emissions decreased by 17% (3), while global NOx emissions decreased by 30% (4), representing reductions in both long-lived and short-lived climate forcers.
Unfortunately, though these variations are measurable, the effect of such fluctuations on climate change are likely to be negligible (4) and transitory in nature (5, 6). Despite the popular perception that “nature is healing” as a result of lockdowns, the effects are unlikely to mitigate climate change on their own.
Yet even so...
Yet even so, they have demonstrated that behavioural change is possible, and that it is within human behaviour to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (2, 5). Behavioural pattern shifts from the pandemic – away from motor vehicle use and with decreased output from emissions-intensive industries – will cause a short-term decrease in CO2 emissions of 5% over 5 years - a change we should strive to build upon (7, 8). Lockdowns demonstrate that reducing emissions can indeed produce tangible effects on the environment.
Therefore, more than any numerical reduction in emissions, lockdowns may have given the global effort against climate change something altogether more powerful: strong evidence that widespread behavioural changes in favour of emissions reductions are possible. In short, it has given us hope. Hope that governments can – when determined – take rapid, drastic action to meet oncoming global crises. Hope that we can make a difference, and it is not beyond our collective, concerted efforts to improve our environment.
The pandemic itself, meanwhile, has been a timely wake-up call to societies that we are not invulnerable to the forces of nature – and the devastating consequences of inaction.
Together they have delivered us both a stern warning and the confidence that we can address such crises. Lockdowns are detrimental to human health, yes. But as the biggest disruption to “business as usual” in decades, they also offer all of humanity an inflection point for action, that with appropriate behavioural changes we can reduce our GHG emissions and curtail climate change’s effects in order to protect global health (9).
I do not contend that lockdowns should be employed as a solution to the climate crisis. But governmental responses to COVID-19 should serve as a blueprint for climate action, with similar resources and impetus mustered to address a comparable global threat. In the same way that economic incentives and stimulus measures such as Australia’s JobKeeper were leveraged to protect vulnerable segments of society and ease economic disruption (10, 11), so too should similar fiscal levers be utilised to incentivise clean energy transitions, retraining programs for fossil fuel-dependent communities, and the adoption of sustainable technologies and systems.
To conclude, though lockdowns exact a toll, any comprehensive evaluation of their effects on health should consider their associated reductions in air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, and the potential ramifications they may have for the climate crisis. The drastic alteration of human behaviour – appropriately supported and facilitated by government intervention - offers humanity an inflection point to prevent climate change and a timely call to action that we must not squander.
1. Meyerowitz-Katz G, Bhatt S, Ratmann O et al. Is the cure really worse than the disease? The health impacts of lockdowns during COVID-19. BMJ Global Health 2021;6:e006653. doi:10.1136/bmjgh-2021-006653
2. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), 2021. Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Cambridge University Press. In Press. Available from: https://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar6/wg1/downloads/report/IPCC_AR6_WGI_Full_Re...
3. Le Quéré C, Jackson R, Jones M et al. Temporary reduction in daily global CO2 emissions during the COVID-19 forced confinement. Nature Climate Change 2020;10:647-653. doi:10.1038/s41558-020-0797-x
4. Forster P, Forster H, Evans M et al. Current and future global climate impacts resulting from COVID-19. Nature Climate Change 2020;10:913-919. doi:10.1038/s41558-020-0883-0
5. Li L, Li Q, Huang L et al. Air quality changes during the COVID-19 lockdown over the Yangtze River Delta Region: An insight into the impact of human activity pattern changes on air pollution variation. Science of The Total Environment 2020;732:139282. doi:10.1016/j.scitotenv.2020.139282
6. Shi Z, Song C, Liu B et al. Abrupt but smaller than expected changes in surface air quality attributable to COVID-19 lockdowns. Science Advances 2021;7. doi:10.1126/sciadv.abd6696
7. Shan Y, Ou J, Wang D et al. Impacts of COVID-19 and fiscal stimuli on global emissions and the Paris Agreement. Nature Climate Change 2020;11:200-206. doi:10.1038/s41558-020-00977-5
8. Le Quéré C, Peters G, Friedlingstein P et al. Fossil CO2 emissions in the post-COVID-19 era. Nature Climate Change 2021;11:197-199. doi:10.1038/s41558-021-01001-0
9. Venter Z, Aunan K, Chowdhury S et al. COVID-19 lockdowns cause global air pollution declines. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 2020;117:18984-18990. doi:10.1073/pnas.2006853117
10. Kent K, Murray S, Penrose B et al. Prevalence and Socio-Demographic Predictors of Food Insecurity in Australia during the COVID-19 Pandemic. Nutrients 2020;12:2682. doi:10.3390/nu12092682
11. Bryson H, Mensah F, Price A et al. Clinical, financial and social impacts of COVID-19 and their associations with mental health for mothers and children experiencing adversity in Australia. PLOS ONE 2021;16:e0257357. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0257357